Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2003
“Our state fair is a great state fair
Don’t miss it, don’t even be late
Bet you dollars to doughnuts that our state fair
Is the best state fair in our state.”
– Oscar Hammerstein II
Even the staunchest of fans of Hammerstein would have to admit that these are not his most inspired lyrics. In fact they are redundant and slightly moronic (just how many state fairs are there in Iowa?) Once you have heard this opening number (those are pretty much the complete lyrics) sung over, and over, and over by the entire corn-fed Frake family, you are well aware that this isn’t Oklahoma! or even Flower Drum Song.
State Fair is a great big ponderous show with an uneven score (yes, I know it won an Oscar and a Tony) and a plot that any eight-year-old can piece together in the first ten minutes. The four Frakes – dad Abel, mom Melissa, daughter Margy, and son Wayne – go to the Iowa State Fair of 1946 and something big happens to each of them. With one exception, it is pretty evident what those big adventures will be, but it takes two and a half hours of determined singing and dancing to get you there. I would have had more fun in the same amount of time at the Columbia County Fair where they have real pigs and I could taste the cotton candy. What a pity it is two weeks away.
None of this is the fault of the Mac-Haydn, which once again trots out a talented cast who gives this show their all. This is the fault of some money-hungry producers back in the mid-1990’s who decided that what the world needed was a “new” Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Hammerstein passed away in 1962 and Rodgers in 1979, but this did not deter them. They took the team’s only property written specifically for film, and beefed up its six-song score with unpublished works, numbers cut from their big hits before they reached Broadway, and songs from their few flops.
What these producers didn’t realize is that it takes more than Rodgers and Hammerstein songs to make a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. A key reason for this team’s success was their ability to chose their topics wisely and maintain a high level of creative control. When one thinks of Rodgers and Hammerstein these days one thinks of Hammerstein’s relentlessly optimistic lyrics, Rodgers soaring melodies, and the phase “good old-fashioned show.” In the age of Sondheim and Lloyd Weber, Rodgers and Hammerstein may sound old-fashioned, but they are and were anything but. Oklahoma! is about a young woman threatened with rape. Carousel is about a girl who marries a criminal and pays a high price. South Pacific and The Sound of Music are about war and racism State Fair is not a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It is a 1990s version of what people think a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is all about.
But I can understand the Mac-Haydn’s reasons for selecting it as their last show of the season. Their property is just down the road from the Columbia County Fairgrounds and that fair opens on the last weekend of “State Fair”’s run. If you are coming to Chatham, why not see two fairs while you are here? And you can see State Fair in air conditioned comfort!
While those reasons are splendid, there is are also excellent reasons why this show was a poor choice for the Mac for this time of year. By the last two weeks of August many of their talented young performers have to leave for college. This means they are struggling to mount a big, big show with a smaller company. There is no lack of talent on the stage, but the big crowds they were able to muster for earlier productions this season just aren’t there. This spectacle is paltry compared to the cheerful extravaganza of the 14th Street Association Parade the company mounted for Hello, Dolly!. This State Fair looks very sparsely attended.
And it looks pretty measly too. With a proscenium house you could do things with a cyclorama, backdrops, flying pieces, etc. to recreate the noise, color and bustle of a big agricultural fair. In the Mac-Haydn there is just about room for the actors and the audience. Everyone talks about the big Ferris wheel, but you don’t see its lights. You don’t hear the barkers calling or the livestock conversing in the barns or the band in the bandstand or the roar of the tractor pull. It just doesn’t feel like a fair, despite the best efforts of the set and lighting designers.
What is worth seeing on the stage at the Mac-Haydn are the performers. Jim Kidd and Cheri Tysver are WAY too young to be the parents of twenty-somethings, but they are heartwarming and endearing as the elder Frakes. I believed that they were a long-married couple looking forward to rediscovering each other as their children prepared to leave the nest – a very nice place in life to be. They have some charming dance numbers and Kidd gets to team up with Jamie Grayson, Raymond Brown, and Phil Olejack for a nifty barbershop number in praise of pigs!
Karla Shook and Nathaniel Suggs play the younger Frakes with innocence and earnestness. You empathize with them as they portray the violence of first loves and first heartbreaks. They both sing and dance very nicely too. As Margy’s love interest Pat Gilbert, Scott Matthew Harris is handsome and charming. Harris is a lively dancer and gets to kick up his heels in a few numbers.
Kelly Shook fairs less well as the object of Wayne’s affections, nightclub singer Emily Arden. She is saddled with some rather uncomfortable songs. When Rodgers collaborated with Lorenz Hart, they turned out dozens of memorable torch songs. That was not Hammerstein’s forte at all, but after Hart died and he and Rodgers first teamed up they took a stab at a few for a long-forgotten show called Me and Juliet, which have ended up wedged awkwardly into State Fair. It is not Kelly Shook’s fault that they are just plain bad and that she has to sing them. She does her level best, and she is ably backed by a good looking male quartet, the Fairtones – Grayson, Brown, Andrew Livingston and Chad Heuschober.
David Bondrow steals several scenes as Judge Heppenstahl, who becomes deeply enamored of Mrs. Frake’s mincemeat for all the wrong reasons and with hilarious results.
Little Alison Lang is a surprise stand-out as Violet, the feisty eleven-year-old daughter of the Chief of Police of Des Moines. She is a stitch in her zesty red and white outfit, and she executes her dance number with Suggs with true Mac-Haydn professionalism. I would not be surprised to watch her grow into bigger and better things over the years.
Director Josey Patton has done all that he can with the resources at hand. And Kelly Shook’s choreography goes a long way towards bringing real sparkle to the lengthy proceedings. When the whole cast kicks up their heels on All I Owe I-o-way, one of the few songs from that Oscar winning score, it is truly a sight to behold.
State Fair runs through August 31 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003